Defeating Pharaoh, and Bending the Arc towards Justice

This week, we begin reading a new book: Exodus / Shemot. The first chapter of Exodus is a veritable character study of Pharaoh. We meet Pharaoh in verse 8 and learn that he "knew not Joseph"... in other words, he is different than the pharaohs who have come before him. In verses 9 and 10, we hear Pharaoh's ego and fear come through from behind the text, and we witness how he manipulates through words as he tries to convince his people that the Israelites are a threat. We see how his Egyptian "base" takes up his cause in verses 13 and 14, transforming into oppressors themselves, and ruthlessly imposing upon the Israelites various labors and embittering their lives. And finally, we see Pharaoh's violent tendencies escalate -- from a place of fear yet again -- as he commands first that all baby boys be killed in private as soon as they are born (verse 15), and then, when that plan fails, that his people murder Israelite babies by drowning them publicly in the Nile River (verse 22).

This week, we begin reading a new book: Exodus / Shemot. The first chapter of Exodus is a veritable character study of Pharaoh. We meet Pharaoh in verse 8 and learn that he "knew not Joseph"... in other words, he is different than the pharaohs who have come before him. In verses 9 and 10, we hear Pharaoh's ego and fear come through from behind the text, and we witness how he manipulates through words as he tries to convince his people that the Israelites are a threat. We see how his Egyptian "base" takes up his cause in verses 13 and 14, transforming into oppressors themselves, and ruthlessly imposing upon the Israelites various labors and embittering their lives. And finally, we see Pharaoh's violent tendencies escalate -- from a place of fear yet again -- as he commands first that all baby boys be killed in private as soon as they are born (verse 15), and then, when that plan fails, that his people murder Israelite babies by drowning them publicly in the Nile River (verse 22).

Indeed, Exodus begins with a potent character sketch of a paranoid and power-hungry ruler who governs with cruelty and capriciousness, and all of this sets the stage for what follows in the rest of the book. And yet, Exodus is not Pharaoh's book!

Instead, the book of Shemot is centered around a story of resistance, a theme which also appears for the first time in the first chapter of Shemot in the bit about the midwives: brilliant women who are ethical and strategic in equal measure. It is a tale about the power of goodness and compassion, which can be found on all "sides of the aisle" -- remember, Pharaoh's own daughter had just as much of a hand in saving Moses as did his own mother and sister (see Exodus 2). It is an illustration of humble, collaborative leadership (see God and Moses's conversation at the burning bush), and the story of the birth of a nation. Exodus stands as our core Jewish narrative because it tells an inspirational tale about our people's journey from the pits of despair in Egypt, to freedom in the wilderness. As we read this book and retell the story of the Exodus each year, we hold this story as a paradigm and a road-map for our future: if we were able to overcome Pharaoh once, we have faith that it can happen again (and again and again).

We Jews are not the only ones who view contemporary events through the prism of the Exodus story: African Americans (and particularly the Black church) also identify deeply with this narrative, articulating that the fight for justice is eternally about overcoming the pharaohs of the world. It is particularly powerful and inspiring to me today to watch Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff -- a black pastor and a southern Jew -- standing together, poised to join the Senate and to tip the balance of American politics.

In Warnock's speech last night, he cited Psalm 30, saying: "Scripture tells us that weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning." In response, Susannah Heschel -- a Jewish studies professor and daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King in Selma -- posted: "Oh joy! Joy has come this morning!! Dear friends, my father is rejoicing in heaven, holding hands with MLK, as Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock hold hands here on earth! Joy to America!"

Indeed, today feels to me like a day for joy, and for hope -- despite the horrifying political theater unfolding right now, that is intended to distract and detract. Today we must remind ourselves that pharaohs never endure forever. The path to overcoming their tyranny and oppression is not an easy one, but -- in the words frequently repeated by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., paraphrased from the 19th century abolitionist Theodor Parker: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Of course, we must do our part to defeat the pharaohs of the world and to bend that arc, and as of now -- in both our Torah cycle and also in the real world -- we still find ourselves rooted firmly in Egypt, a place that is as yet unredeemed. Our path forward, as we embark on our own contemporary Exodus story, must (like the book of Shemot) feature resilience and resistance to tyranny, goodness and compassion, humility and collaborative leadership.

One of the most critical pieces of the journey we must undertake here in America will be the path towards achieving racial justice for our society. This will take an undoing of centuries of injustice, and a lifting of the veil from the white supremacist underpinnings upon which our nation was founded and has continued to be built.

Yesterday -- while polls were still open in Georgia -- my head was buzzing as I watched internal Jewish politics swirl in the Jewish press around the Georgia election. First, Rabbi Avi Weiss -- a prominent rabbi in the world of Modern/"Open" Orthodoxy -- really tried to take down Raphael Warnock on the grounds that he believes him to be antisemitic based on his views on Israel/Palestine. I disagree vehemently with Avi Weiss's claim, but I am sharing the link to his piece here, together with two responses published yesterday that I found particularly thoughtful: this article by Abby Brockman (who lives here in Seattle), and this one by Joshua Shanes (a Jewish studies professor, who happens to be married to my first cousin). Taken together, these pieces raise some very serious questions for our consideration and further examination: about intersectional politics and identities, the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, the need to consider complex issues with nuance, and the latent racism that still exists within our American Jewish community. These are all topics and tensions we will need to explore head-on -- from a posture of learning and self-examination, with care and thoughtfulness -- if we are serious about repairing the black-Jewish relationship, and having our Jewish community play a leadership role in dismantling racism and building a more just society.

This is work we are taking seriously at Kavana, on a board level and in our programs (for example, our High School program will begin a three-month-long arc of learning about anti-racism this spring). These are topics I'm unpacking with my Black-Jewish Clergy Group (the "Rabbis and Revs"), which plans to continue meeting regularly in 2021 to continue to build relationships and to work together in the struggle for racial justice. And, this is work that's happening on a Seattle Jewish community level too, as our new JCRC has determined that Racial Equity is the first topic they will tackle together.

As we embark on our journey through the book of Exodus this week, let's pause for a moment to recognize where we stand. Today, we can feel the hope and joy -- the joy that, according to Psalm 30, "comes in the morning" -- and at the same time, we also have horrible, visible reminders (in the domestic terrorists storming the Capitol Building as I type) that our journey begins in the depths of oppression and depravity in Egypt.

However, we know how to walk this path, from slavery and degradation to freedom and expansiveness. We already have within us the power to stand up to Pharaoh, no matter how fearful and paranoid, cruel and violent he may be.

Let's get moving - we have a Pharaoh to defeat and an arc to bend!
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum